Saturday, January 15, 2011

Beautiful Isle of Somewhere

Praise for the Lord #69

Words: Jessie Brown Pounds, 1897
Music: J. S. Fearis, 1897

For a brief discussion of this important hymn writer of the 19th-century Restoration Movement, see my post on her text, "Am I nearer to heaven today?" Jessie Hunter Brown (1861-1921) lived two doors down from the Christian Church in Hiram, Ohio, and grew up to marry John Pounds, who became minister at the same congregation. Most of her life was lived on the same street in the same town, and revolved around the same church family, something many of us can hardly imagine today. This is not to say that her world was small; despite her frail health which often kept her homebound, she was a natural scholar who taught herself from the Bible and the classics, attended Hiram College for two years, and became a significant regional writer who is only today beginning to become appreciated again as she was in her own time. Her church family included prominent individuals, most notably President James A. Garfield; and ironically, one of her hymns, "Beautiful isle of somewhere," would become forever associated with yet another President assassinated in office, William McKinley.

Pounds related that this lyric came to her out of an enforced isolation, during a cold winter's Sunday evening in 1896 when her husband insisted that she remain home from worship services because of her health. Frustrated by her inability to gather with the saints, she contemplated that "somewhere the sun is shining" (certainly in heaven, at least), and she would not be so hindered.(Troyer) The phrase had some currency in late 19th-century popular song and poetry, as for example in the following Scottish ballad,

Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere a little rain;
Somewhere a heart is pining
For love, but all in vain.("Broadside ballads")

Or for an original American example, "Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright..." from the final stanza of "Casey at the bat." This is not to say that Pounds borrowed from any of these sources, any more than any other lyricist borrows from the examples of what has gone before or is in the air at the time. Sometimes the test of one's ability is what can be done with this material, and Jessie Pounds made a remarkably well-crafted lyric around this simple theme.

The earliest instance of this song found in Hymnary.org is in Songs for young people, edited by Edwin O. Excell, published by Curts & Jennings in Cincinnati in 1897. It skyrocketed to fame, however, from its use at the funeral of President William McKinley in 1901, and appeared in dozens of hymnals from the ensuing decade. It was sung by the all-female Euterpean Quartette, whose arrangement was later published in the sheet music seen in the illustration. Perhaps its somewhat wistful tone captured the mood of a nation saying goodbye to the Victorian era, and facing a strange new century that had begun with the murder of a President by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

Stanza 1:
Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere the songbirds dwell;
Hush then thy sad repining,
God lives, and all is well.

The environs of Hiram (northeast Ohio, about halfway between Cleveland and the Pennsylvania state line) are particularly blessed with migrating songbirds during the spring, as they stop for a rest before continuing across the Great Lakes into New England and Canada. Visitors include a large variety of warblers, the ruby-throated hummingbird, and the Baltimore oriole.(Ohio DNR) As happy as I am to hear the simple tune of the robins in the early spring, I can only imagine the joy that this variety of songsters brought to Jessie Pounds!

One of the benefits of winter is that it makes us enjoy spring; and though we would not wish difficult times on anyone, they will come anyway, and one of their indirect benefits is that they make us appreciate quiet, peaceful moments. On a larger scale, the sorrows of life make us realize that this world is certainly not where we would want to stay forever, and we begin to look more longingly toward a better home.

What an encouragement to know that there is a place where these difficulties and sorrows never come! One of the most often-quoted verses from the Revelation tells us that, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." Just as we can imagine, in the midst of winter, the coming of the songbirds and spring, we can think on these promises of heaven and, "having seen them and greeted them from afar," remembering that we are "strangers and exiles on the earth."(Hebrews 11:13)

But just as a check is only as good as the bank on which it is drawn, these promises are only as good as the one who has promised to keep them. The cause of assurance is given in the last line of the stanza: God lives. Job knew this, and even in the midst of his calamities said, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth."(Job 19:25) If this is the security backing up our hopes, we need never worry!

Refrain:
Somewhere, somewhere,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!
Land of the true, where we live anew,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!

Warning: I have absolutely no conclusive evidence for the following: I have a hunch that the refrain of this hymn might not have been part of Pounds's original poem. It shares nothing of the meter or rhyme scheme of the stanzas, and is not of the same craftsmanship, at least as poetry. It strikes me as having been written with the music in mind. Try reading the three stanzas aloud, and then the refrain; the stanzas make quite good poetry, where the refrain is rather disorganized and uneven without the music.

There is nothing in Pounds's story of the lyric's origin to suggest that she wrote it with the intent of being set to music, rather than just as a poem. Consequently, I am suggesting that the refrain may have been added by Fearis when he set the poem to music. I may be totally wrong about this, and a search of the Jessie Brown Pounds Collection at the Hiram College library (thanks to archivist Jennifer Morrow) unfortunately did not reveal any evidence one way or the other.

When did we start describing heaven as a beautiful island? The expression was current in gospel song writing at the time this hymn appeared (though the title "O the beautiful Isle of Somewhere" by Emma A. Tiffany, ca. 1898, suggests something more than just a metaphor in common). In a search of Hymnary.org one also finds "There's a beautiful island" by E. Carrie, ca. 1872, and "'Midst the pastures green of the blessed isles" by Sophia Griswold, ca. 1864. Though the latter seems to be an elaboration of the parable of the lost sheep and the ninety-and-nine, the comparison to heaven seems certain enough. Interestingly, the "blessed isles" are a heaven-like locale in Celtic mythology, and are still woven into the culture of English-speaking people through the island of Avalon in the Arthur legends. Or perhaps the picture of heaven as a lush, temperate island (which appears only in the refrain) was inspired by the increased American involvement in the Pacific; the 1890s was the decade in which the indigenous monarchy of Hawaii was overthrown and the islands annexed as a U.S. territory.

The ambiguity of this expression in this hymn was even brought into the political arena; during his governorship of New Jersey, future President Woodrow Wilson singled out "Beautiful Isle" as "silly and meaningless."(NYT 1 Oct 1911) It created a minor furor, since he was addressing a Sunday school convention, and the massed audience had sung the hymn earlier in the program. The following Sunday, John D. Rockefeller Sr. made certain to let reporters know that he quite favored the hymn.(NYT 9 Oct 1911) Surely partisanship played no part!

Stanza 2:
Somewhere the day is longer,
Somewhere the task is done;
Somewhere the heart is stronger,
Somewhere the guerdon won.

(Refrain)

At first impression many of us would not wish for a place where "the day is longer," but remembering what time of year this was written, we can see that Pounds is referring to the short days and wan light of the depths of winter. Though we many embrace this philosophically as a necessary part of the natural rhythm of God's creation, it is well known to have stressful effects on some individuals. But heaven is a place that "has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb."(Revelation 21:23) Here is a source of pure and perfect light and warmth, "with Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change."(James 1:17)

"Guerdon" is defined as "a reward, requital, or recompense,"(OUD) and though it may have been common to Shakespeare and Milton, has been a word strictly of the poetic vocabulary ever since. It originates from the Medieval Latin "widerdonum," apparently a conglomeration of the German wieder ("again") and the Latin donum "payment"), thus mirroring the modern colloquial term "pay-back," though in the good sense of the term.

We might hesitate to think of anything we receive from God in such terms; "payment for services rendered" simply does not enter into our relationship with our heavenly Father! But the Scriptures speak in terms of a "reward," though given through the grace of God, and we should embrace it. Jesus promised that "the Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works."(Matthew 16:27) It is something to which we look forward earnestly, and must to which we must be attentive, as warned in Colossians 2:18, "Let no man rob you of your prize."(American Standard Version) 2 John, v. 8, likewise admonishes, "Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward." Like the "prize" or "crown" of the athletic games so often referenced by Paul, it will be brought to us by Jesus at the end of our race. "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done."(Revelation 22:12) Let us strive so that, by His grace, it will  be a recompense for good!

Stanza 3:
Somewhere the load is lifted,
Close by an open gate;
Somewhere the clouds are rifted,
Somewhere the angels wait.

(Refrain)

Burdens are with us in life, no matter what our beliefs. The Christian life is no less so, and in fact might be seen as more burdensome, for the fact that we have not the option of shirking our duty and seeking an easier path. But the Christian has help. "Every man shall bear his own burden," assures Galatians 6:5, but in the same passage we read, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ."(v. 2) We have help all along the road--brothers and sisters around the world, and even speaking to us from times past.

More than this, we have the promise of Jesus, as so beautifully and memorably rendered in the King James English: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."(Matthew 11:28-30) "He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability."1 Corinthians 10:13)

It is a thought worth remembering, that the sun is shining somewhere; no matter how bad things seem (or actually are), they will not always be so. Even the clouds, which darken the sky so often in winter and make the days gray and dreary, have this consolation: someday, we are promised, the clouds will reveal the return of Him for whom we wait.(Mark 14:62)

About the music:

John Sylvester Fearis (1867-1932) wrote music for just a handful of hymns, none of which are well known except for this one. He set one other lyric by Jessie Brown Pounds, "There's light for a step." His biography given in the Cyberhymnal, however, leaves out his extensive career in secular music. A search of Worldcat.org reveals that he composed music for at least three operettas--Aunt Drusilla's Garden, The Family Doctor, and The Trial of Santa Claus (one can only imagine!). He published several piano waltzes, and got into the 1907 "teddy bear" craze with Teddy Bear Waltz and March of the Teddy Bears for piano. He had a popular novelty song, "Little Sir Echo," but also addressed more serious material in a choral cantata setting of The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Fearis's setting of "Beautiful Isle" is a fine example of the American popular ballad in the tradition of Stephen Foster; in fact it could almost be mistaken for a Foster tune, eminently singable and easy to harmonize. These two factors have made it a favorite of barbershop quartets, and it has been recorded frequently by traditional gospel and country artists.

References:

Troyer, Loris C. "Fame was fleeting for Hiram lyricist Jessie Brown Pounds." Portage pathways. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1998, 130-132.

"Broadside ballads." Word on the Street. National Library of Scotland, 2004. http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/16420

Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "Spring songbirds winging their way north to Ohio."
http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/Home/SpringSongbirds/tabid/10702/Default.aspx

Oxford Universal Dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.

"Wilson a hymn critic." New York Times (2 October 1911).
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0714F93A5517738DDDAB0894D8415B818DF1D3

"Rockefeller likes hymn." New York Times (9 October 1911).
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F40B12FB355A15738DDDA00894D8415B818DF1D3

3 comments:

  1. Update on my totally unfounded hunch about the refrain: After looking at the hymns published in Jessie Brown Pounds's Memorial Selections (Chicago: Disciples Publication Society, 1921), I have to conclude that I was wrong, and that the refrain was written by Mrs. Pounds herself. The refrain of "Beautiful isle of somewhere" is presented in this volume in exactly the same way as those of "I know that my Redeemer liveth," "Anywhere with Jesus," "Will you not tell it today," "We are going down the valley," and "The way of the cross leads home."

    Also, there is a common pattern to these refrains: a key word or phrase from the first line of the first stanza (or from the title) is restated as the first line of the refrain, sometimes repeated for a second line, then repeated again as the closing line after a contrasting second or third line. Compare, for example:

    Somewhere, somewhere,
    Beautiful isle of somewhere;
    Land of the true, where we live anew,
    Beautiful isle of somewhere.

    Anywhere, anywhere,
    Fear I cannot know;
    Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.

    The way of the cross leads home,
    The way of the cross leads home,
    It is sweet to know as I onward go,
    The way of the cross leads home.

    This is a fairly common way to write a refrain, of course, but the consistency of this structure in JBP's hymns seems more than coincidental. The refrain of "Beautiful isle of somewhere" fits the mold perfectly.

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    Replies
    1. Very helpful. Thank you.

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  2. Thanks for a fascinating exegesis of this hymn

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